There’s a certain beguiling simplicity to Baba Ramdev’s campaign to bring back black money hoards from foreign banks: just declare all of it as “national assets” — and confiscate them — and all of India’s problems will be solved, he reasons.
As part of his effort to rustle up support for his campaign, Baba Ramdev has been lining up meetings with leaders from parties across the political spectrum (barring the Congress and the CPI(M)) – from Sharad Pawar to Nitin Gadkari to Mulayam Singh Yadav to N Chandrababu Naidu to Naveen Patnaik.
All of them said they supported his campaign and even allowed themselves to be photographed in public with the Baba whom the Congress has been looking to discredit, by slapping tax arrears notices and Enforcement Directorate investigations into allegations of the Baba’s own “black money” transactions.
‘Mullah’ Mulayam (as he is popularly referred to in Uttar Pradesh for his assiduous cultivation of Muslim votes) even overcame his long-standing inhibitions about Colour Saffron enough to allow a photo-op with the flamboyantly saffron-clad Baba.
The CPI(M) is the only party that has thus far steadfastly refused to meet him: it has told Baba not to bother turning up at the party office. From the time when the party’s leader Brinda Karat waged a campaign alleging that the medicines purveyed in his ashram were spurious (and contained animal parts), the party has had an antagonistic relationship with the Baba. And it is not about to revise its opinion of him merely because every other leader is doing head-stands in front of the yoga guru.
Of course, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has characteristically been bad-mouthing the Baba — and asking him to disclose his own black money holdings before waging this campaign. But such is the image trap that Digvijaya Singh has fallen into with his motormouth indiscretions that few people, even with the Congress, take him seriously enough.
Even so, the range of pan-political public support that Baba Ramdev has evidently lined up for his black money bazooka campaign would be very impressive – except that it isn’t.
The readiness with which these leaders have offered their support to the Baba’s campaign merely reflects the fact that being seeing to be saying politically correct things about black money has become important given the heightened awareness on this issue among the public in recent times.
It’s the equivalent of the professed yearning for “world peace” among beauty pageant competitors. Who, in their right minds, would oppose “black money campaigns” (or, for that matter, “world peace”)?
But in equal measure, the politicians are also acutely aware that (just like the aspiration for “world peace”), Baba Ramdev’s campaign pitch is so disingenuous and naïve as to not have any meaningful impact.
In other words, there are cheap political brownie points to be had by supporting Baba Ramdev’s campaign, without any risks. They perhaps reckon that they can harvest a bit of the support of Baba Ramdev’s faithful flock of supporters, come election time.
Black money in foreign banks is of course a serious problem. And of course no Indian government has been as coercive as it might have been in wielding diplomatic clout to force international financial entities and tax havens to cough up details of black money holdings by persons of Indian origin.
But Baba Ramdev’s approach — of declaring all of it as national assets and ferrying boatloads of black money home — represents an overly simplistic misunderstanding of the complexities involved in dealing with tax havens.
As Firstpost had noted here, the process of retrieving black money is much more complicated, involving secrecy-cloaked tax havens abroad that are structured in precisely such a way as to defeat the efforts of national governments to retrieve the loot.
Dev Kar, lead economist at the Global Financial Integrity, Centre for International Policy, notes in his paper on An Empirical Study on the Transfer of Black Money from India: 1948: 2008:
There continue to be sporadic reports in the Indian media of “getting the money back” from various tax havens around the world. This too is sensationalism with scant regard for the legal and other challenges involved. Illicit assets are typically lodged in secrecy jurisdictions behind a tight wall of opacity. Moreover, complex ﬁnancial instruments such as derivatives and trust companies are structured in such a way that tracing the ultimate beneﬁciary of such investments is next to impossible. Furthermore, proving that a certain individual received illicit funds from a speciﬁc source for a speciﬁc illegal activity (as a result of bribery, kickbacks, drug trafﬁcking, etc) and then transferred those funds on a speciﬁc date to a speciﬁc account in a secrecy jurisdiction is almost impossible to do in a court of law. To make matters more difﬁcult, offshore centres, tax havens, and even developed country banks would not permit any government agency to go on a “ﬁshing expedition” by allowing them to trawl through their accounts in search of illicit funds. Hence, the legal challenges involved in linking illicit funds to speciﬁ c account holders would be almost impossible to surmount.
Baba Ramdev’s campaign fails to acknowledge this complexity, which is why his thunderous call to “bring back the black money” is less a bazooka and more a tame firecracker. It sounds good and noble, but is practically ineffectual. Which is why none of the politicians have any problem supporting the campaign: they know nothing will come of it.
For much of last year, Team Anna too did the rounds of the political parties, hoping to sell them the concept of a Jan Lokpal Bill to establish a strong anti-corruption agency. They too were given anodyne statements of support and solidarity by various leaders. Yet, when the chips were down, and the Lokpal Bill — albeit a substantially watered down version of it — was actually tabled in Parliament, all of them teamed up as one man and worked to dilute and eventually kill the Lokpal Bill. Even if it passes today, it will be a mere shadow of the Bill as originally envisaged.
In the fight against corruption — and black money hoards — politicians are happy to pay lip service – particularly when they know exactly how ineffectual the campaign can be.
Baba Ramdev may today feel he has the backing of a pan-political spectrum of leaders in his campaign, but in fact such support doesn’t amount to anything more than a hill of beans.